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Sociology in the News: How much does university cost, and is it worth it?

Vicki Woolven

18th August 2022

Thousands of students are receiving their A-Level results today - and despite a fall in top grades, university admissions are near their record. However, with the cost of living rising, many may be wondering whether going to university is worth the price.

As someone from a working class background, who was lucky enough to go to university when tuition was free and a maintenance grant covered rent I graduated with very little debt. If I was collecting my A-Level results today think I would be seriously weighing up the pros and cons of getting a degree.

What does it cost to go to university?

Most student debt comes from tuition fees which most students pay by taking out a student loan. Annual fees vary widely but the maximum in England is £9,250 and £9,000 in Wales. In Northern Ireland homegrown students will pay a maximum of £4,630 compared to £9,250 for other UK students. Whereas in Scotland most Scottish students will attend for free, with £9,250 for everyone else. However in Scotland there is a cap on university places so it is harder to study there.

And then of cost you have to pay for your accommodation - I paid £40 a week for a 3-bed house share in Leicester in the late 1990s! This worked out at around £1,600 for the year. In 2021-22, the average rent for university-owned rooms was £6,227 per year, while for private rooms this was £7,732. And of course this varies hugely depending on where you study, with London, Oxford and Cambridge commanding the highest student rents - in fact rents around Imperial College in London are over £4,000 per month!

Students are able to take out maintenance loans to meet their living costs - but students in London can expect around 88% of that loan to be taken up by rent, compared to 72% in other parts of England - leaving barely anything to spend on other living costs.

As a result many students from lower income families choose to stay at home and commute to university - in fact they are 3 times more likely to do this than other students. But of course there are transport costs to consider - do they buy a car and shell out for insurance and fuel or do they use expensive public transport?

Currently an average degree student in England who pays the maximum tuition fees and chooses to stay in university rooms for their first year before switching to private accommodation for their 2nd and 3rd year, will pay on average £49,441 to graduate!! But we haven't even factored in the other extra costs of student life, such as food, going out and course materials.

Student loans

In 1999 I left university with about £4,500 debt - each year I took out the maximum student loan to top up my maintenance grant and allow me to go out and have fun, as well as save up for a small car that I needed for the PGCE I did after graduating. I had paid off my student loan by the time I was 25! Today most graduates will still be paying off their loans in their 50s.

So how do student loans work? The typical student loan is made up of two elements:

  • loan for the tuition fees - paid directly to the university
  • maintenance loan - paid into the student's bank account in instalments

Students are charged interest on their total loan from the day they take it out, and once they graduate and start earning over the repayment threshold they will repay their loan through the tax system - although this differs across the UK. If you live in England and you start university this September, any outstanding debt will be written off completely after 30 years. This will rise to 40 years for those who start their course in 2023.

What financial help is available for lower income students?

It is a huge decision to go to university, particularly if you are from a family who struggles financially. But there is assistance for those who need it, to ensure that everyone can attend university if they want to. Full-time undergraduates in Wales are entitled to maintenance grants of at least £1,000 - and up to £10,124 for students from the poorest backgrounds studying in London. Students can also apply for financial assistance from the university itself, or charitable groups, in the form of bursaries, grants, allowances or scholarships. There are also hardship funds available that do not have to be paid back.

But overall is it worth getting a degree?

I loved university and would say that it is totally worth it - but again I speak as someone who never had to pay to go! Generally most graduates will earn more than non-graduates - however the "graduate premium" - the comparatively higher earnings of university graduates - has reduced over time.

And of course it varies by subject, by gender and by socio-economic background.

Key observations from the graph above:

  • Women who studied creative arts and languages degrees earned the same amount of money in their lifetime than they would have had they not gone to university.
  • Women who studied law, economics or medicine earned more than £250,000 more than they would have done had they not gone.
  • Men who studied creative arts on average earned less across their lifetimes than if they had not attended university, but male medicine or economics graduates earned £500,000 more in their lifetime than they would have done if they had not gone.

A tool for social mobility?

Research by the Sutton Trust highlights students from poorer backgrounds are likely to earn more than their parents if they attend university. But there are also many who claim that it really isn't a level playing field - if you look at graduates who were eligible for free school meals, only 1/5 will achieve earnings in the top 20% of the country, compared to around half of graduates from private schools - although you can argue this is also down to the networking capabilities of those from wealthier backgrounds.


When students are deciding whether to attend university of not, of course money is a key consideration. But it is important to remember that university doesn't just provide you with a degree - going to university is about meeting new people and gaining new experiences. I loved my university days and if I could go back 20+ years I don't think the increased cost of living, and prospect of huge student loans, would put me off.

Vicki Woolven

Vicki Woolven is Subject Lead for Key Stage 4 Humanities at tutor2u. Vicki previously worked as a Head of Geography and Sociology for many years, leading her department to be one of the GA's first Centres of Excellent, and has been a content writer, senior examiner and local authority Key Practitioner for Humanities.

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